From monkey markets to fishy business, we’re finding that many animals make rational trades. Even brainless fungi have a thing or two to teach us
“THE propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. That was back in 1776, but the idea that humans are the only species capable of economic behaviour persisted for a long time. Intuitively, it makes sense. Responding to shifts in supply and demand, for instance, must be the preserve of species with brains hefty enough to think through decisions rationally.
Or so we thought. As we get to know Earth’s myriad other species better, it is becoming apparent that many animals and organisms make trades, and that some are surprisingly savvy wheeler-dealers capable of manipulating the market in their own selfish interests. From frisky baboons to fish offering spa treatments on the reef, pretty much everywhere we look in nature we find evidence of surprisingly sophisticated economic decision-making. Even fungi are at it, and according to the latest studies, these brainless soil dwellers give the impression of being more rational than us.
Such revelations are handing us a fresh understanding of the origins of cooperation. They also chip away at the idea that sophisticated behaviour requires a big brain. They might even teach us a thing or two about ourselves, says Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at the Free University Amsterdam. “What are the basic strategies organisms have evolved to cope with relentless variation in resource availability? It is naive to think an MBA will …